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OPINION | MIKE MASTERSON: Roads we travel

by Mike Masterson | August 30, 2022 at 4:28 a.m.

Editor's note: Mike Masterson is taking the day off. The original version of this column was published Oct. 9, 2007.

Literature abounds with references to the roads we choose to follow in a lifetime and how those choices inevitably intersect in all directions, thereby making all the difference in how our realities unfold.

Each change of direction will wind us into new horizons or different vistas, and sometimes dead ends. It sometimes can take years to realize where the twisting roads we selected along the way have left us.

I plopped into a rocking chair on the deck last week and took a few minutes to relive a few of my own. You might want to do that one day just for perspective.

In my early 20s I was adrift and in search of the right passage that would lead to a career. I'd failed as a manager trainee at Osco Drug in downtown Little Rock, having been summarily fired for handing out Brach's bin candy to tired customers waiting in the long checkout lines.

I'd briefly considered the road to law school, and another that would have taken me though the gates of the U.S. Coast Guard Academy. Other paths that caught my fantasy meandered off toward retail sales and even the seminary.

I finally decided to follow Interstate 40 toward completing my undergraduate degree in Conway at State College of Arkansas (now the University of Central Arkansas). On registration day, I came upon an instructor named Dean Duncan seated behind a folding table beneath a banner proclaiming "Journalism." Over the next two years, this man would guide me onto the road leading to my career.

The path I'd chosen also would lead me to the young woman who'd become my wife and the mother of my two children.

One by one, the roads I was electing to follow led to others. As years passed, numerous career and personal paths presented themselves at unexpected times, each one forcing me to confront myself at the deepest levels. Would we move to Dallas? Kansas City? Seattle? Chicago? Phoenix?

In retrospect, I can see the trick to making the wisest choices at the intersections of these endless thoroughfares was more complex with variables than I could have imagined, especially once the decision involved more lives than my own.

The advice I'd give to someone now choosing which forks to follow would be to ask questions that only he or she can answer. Are the diverting paths ahead likely to leave you and those you love more fulfilled and happier than you are now? Is the additional money you're being offered really worth sacrificing where you are on your road today, especially when it will be absorbed in a big city by taxes and unforeseen additional expenses?

There are more. Will this road likely lead to an enriched life for you and, if relevant, those now relying on you? Is this choice more about salving your ego and/or natural insecurities than living with reality? Is there a chance that by choosing an obviously hazardous and overgrown road filled with sharp rocks, risk and danger, you will stumble into a deep ravine from which there is no escape? Is this the best road for your career but possibly a bad path for the welfare of your relationship with those close to you?

Too many among us choose treacherous pathways even when it's evident from watching others falling in the distance that they lead to disaster. Later we are prone to wonder just what it was that made us take even the first step in that direction.

Fortunately, I seem to have been blessed with some internal meter that always has let me know when a road seemed right or wrong at the moment. Even when the money was better and the thrill of "bigger" was in the offing in another direction, I found myself politely declining and staying the course. I believe most of us have this same personal GPS of sorts, if we will wipe its lens clear enough to follow.

Whenever I did head off on a new road, it always led to others that branched ever onward and outward. For example, my decision to leave Hot Springs for Los Angeles led to Chicago, then back to Arkansas, then to Phoenix. And all that opened a new avenue that took me to five rewarding years at Ohio State University.

Those of us who have lived more than a few decades can't help but wonder where we'd be today had we made just one different choice in the roads of our past. What experiences would have been entirely different and what other people might we have known?

There comes a time when the choice of roads is fewer and one grows content to make differences wherever his previous paths have led. As varied in elevation and expanse as mine have been, every road I chose at all those intersections eventually merged here on a wooden deck in this rocking chair, where I pondered the significance or futility of every mile.


Mike Masterson is a longtime Arkansas journalist, was editor of three Arkansas dailies and headed the master's journalism program at Ohio State University. Email him at mmasterson@arkansasonline.com.


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